Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Album Review; Radiohead "In Rainbows"

I think it would be unfair for me to write a review for a Radiohead album before stating the obvious; Radiohead is the best rock band in the world, period. Ok, so maybe that was a little bias, or maybe it was a lot bias, but I can’t go on writing another word without proclaiming that Radiohead have been my favorite band for the last ten years. Back in 2001 during my freshman year of college when my obsession with Radiohead reached its unhealthiest peak concurrent with their album release Amnesiac, I distinctly remember a fellow dorm mate (who shall remain nameless) asking me what I listened to. When I chimed out confidently “Radiohead” I’ll never forget how he replied; “What that band who sang Creep?….they suck!”. My next reaction naturally was one of contempt, but it quickly morphed into sympathy; sympathetic that he hadn’t (and may never will have) any concept of the greatness, depth, scope, grandeur, and magnitude that is Radiohead. While comments like this in my frat minded dorm probably didn’t help my early reputation of being that introverted kid, I didn’t mind because while they were listening to Emenem on a constant loop I had the unique pleasure of experiencing a band that was continuously changing, expanding, and evolving not only their own sound, but the entire face of rock music.

This is just one of the many reasons why I’ve been obsessed with Radiohead. Besides the fact that musically and sonically they’ve always been light years ahead of their peers, more importantly they are a socially conscious band that have always relied on instinct and virtuosity rather than profit and sales. For example back in the year 2000 right before their eclectic, and brilliantly abstract album Kid A was to be released, nearly all its album tracks had been leaked on to the internet, which was then just that lone scapegoat Napster. Of course in those early days of mp3 (when it seemed so revolutionary and anarchical to download music) the record industry, confused and blindsided by the notion of digital music, hastily made it their top priority to shut down the programs that were “stealing” it. Countless headlining bands joined the copyright infringement bandwagon, most noteworthy and embarrassingly being Metallica. However when it seemed even the toughest of bands (if you consider Lars Ulrich tough) was whining about losing money, Radiohead were one of the only bands that supported downloading music, more or less because 1) they knew if the music was good enough that people will still buy the albums regardless 2) even if the songs were downloaded millions of times over it still wouldn’t have seriously hurt the deep pockets of already wealthy musicians. Luckily Radiohead’s music was a little more than good enough, but its was that instinct of earnestness, humility, and defiance that helped them grow into the heroes of modern rock, and with new album In Rainbows they have used this defiance to once again shake the foundation of the methodical music industry.

Its hard to imagine that Radiohead haven’t released an album since Hail to the Thief in 2003, and in their 4 year absence, the music landscape and industry has drastically changed. Since then we’ve collectively upgraded into the corporate digital music age, the very one that Radiohead had prophesized (and feared) since Ok Computer in 1997. Downloading music has been completely turned on its head and the record industry has not only learned how to embrace the digital music they once feared, but synthesized and capitalized it into their greatest financial model. iTunes and iPods has since controlled the way we listen and buy our music, and because of the digital download market’s dominance, bands now tailor make their music for digital consumption rather than orientated for an album. Because singles are more easily downloaded than an entire album, minor and major bands suffocating in the immense digital chaotic shuffle are tempted to create music that is more user friendly, thereby destroying the ideals of “album rock”. Its become a streamlined process fueled by commercialism, advertising and hyper consumerism, and even thought its become the standard, the creativity of bands have suffered in our instant gratifying digitized world. Although many bands of moral have tried to resist iTunes, the monopoly of the digital music world has since acquired almost every existing popular band (recently and sadly even Led Zeppelin), except, that is, for one band…. any guesses?

In Rainbows is the response, and the wake up call to our world transfixed in our digital media. Once again presenting their gift of social consciousness, Radiohead embraced their alliance with technology to defy the control of the monopolizing iTunes. Where countless band after band gave in to sell their music (and maybe souls) online, Radiohead stood boldly as soul survivors, and ever since they’ve been freed of their contract with Capitol in 2003, they been able to do the most rational and unselfish thing possible; give away their music. In the (now historical) surprise announcement that Radiohead would let fans download their album and pay whatever they felt was necessary for it, they set an example for the rest of the industry to feel shameful for. It is the slap in the face to both the record companies and popular bands who let themselves get caught up in the traps of digitized popular music. And if I had to guess what the title of In Rainbows means, it’s probably exactly that; that in 2007 its easier to be caught up “in rainbows” of glossy, shiny, accessible, commercialized pop music bliss, rather than try to achieve something more intricate, genuine and benign. Granted Radiohead are one of the only bands in the world with the ability to attempt something like this, knowing their loyal rational fanbase (I paid $10 dollars), they still have the gravitas to ask us what their music is worth, and just like a chartable organization, they trust in our willingness to give, rather then require it.

But hold on, don’t think this is just one long love letter to Radiohead, the music of In Rainbows is still a horse of a different color. Alas, when we talk about the songs they’ve given away in this humble offering, it’s not hard to see why they were willing to try their experiment. Anyone familiar with Radiohead’s history know they are a band who’s always been uncomfortable in their own skin. This is especially true for lead singer Thom Yorke, who has unofficially been the disenchanted leader of the band since their early days. However since 2003 Thom and the band have found a peace within their music, and have settled into a more relaxed, less taxing stage of their career. The band feel they have nothing more to prove musically, and are comfortable enough playing off each other, rather then pushing themselves like they had years ago on Kid A. For the band’s health and longevity this is reassuring, however for a band of sonic experimentation, its not. All but two songs on In Rainbows are songs that have been played live during the last two years, and for one of the best live acts in the world, the news songs pale in comparison to their classics…..

Upon listening to the album you realize; these were not only very relaxed sessions, but that the music was almost specifically crafted to be given away digitally. As soon as you listen to the openings of both “15th step” and “Bodysnatchers” you can hear that low poor quality 160kbps sound buzzing through your headphones. Even though these are the two stand out tracks, they seem almost deliberately low-fi with their live incarnations sounding almost identical, if not better. When you reach “Nude” the song that has been floating around for ten years as “Don’t get any (big ideas)” in Radiohead’s back catalogue, its beautifully sung by Yorke, but still had potential to become something much more impressive. And this is the thread that runs through the album, with the possible exception of “Faust Arp”, which is a beautiful finger picked Thom Yorke acoustic masterpiece. I’m not saying the album is bad, but it is definitely not on par with their sweeping epic Ok Computer that launched you into the space with “Airbag”, and leaves you stranded in cold desolation with “The Tourist”. Its not as distant, isolated and eerie beautiful ad Kid A and Amnesiac which suffice to say I believe are perfect albums. Maybe my standards as a devoted Radiohead fan are too high, but this album to me seems more like Radiohead patching up leftovers and tying up loose ends. From a band that are practical the kings of album rock, “In Rainbows” is surprisingly incoherent with a lack of connectively flowing tracks, which is ironic based on my previous sentiments.

Yet even in Radiohead’s mistakes, there are truths, and I can’t help but believe (and hope) Radiohead had the whole album planned out this way from early on. After all, they are the socially conscious band, and these songs could very well play right into their theme of music loosing touch with its creativity (hence its unpolished low-fi sound). And even though this album is blatantly very organic, and straightforwardly “Radioheadish” it still haunts me why they didn’t flesh out the tracks more. But like I said, Radiohead really don’t have anything left to prove, and compared to so many other albums that are being undeservingly praised right now in the barrage of digitally packaged music, Radiohead In Rainbows is still far and away better then any of your current indie picks. That’s why I am going to give this album two reviews; one for a Radiohead album, and the second review comparing it to everything else in the iTuned catalogued music world of 2007. Radiohead may not be perfect, but at least you can always expect them to do the unexpected, remind us of our flaws, and occasional come back to save the (music) universe.

Radiohead “In Rainbows” (compared to older RH albums) 2 ½ out of 5 stars
Radiohead “In Rainbows” (compared to everything else) 4 ½ out of 5 stars

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